Fun fact: Dave Eggers used to be a music journalist.
Well, to put it another way: the author of such groundbreaking novels as The Circle, A Heartbreaking World of Staggering Genius, What Is The What and the recently released The Parade hasn't written about music much since penning a mid-'00s column for Spin Magazine called "And Now, A Less Informed Opinion," but he still engages with the subject quite a bit. Most of the time it's by listening to his record collection (Eggers exclusively spins vinyl), and lately he's exploring a project with fellow writers Nick Hornby (About A Boy, High Fidelity, Juliet, Naked) and Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policeman's Union). Together, they're auctioning off artists' setlists.
Benefiting youth writing and activism centers, including London’s Ministry of Stories and The International Congress of Youth Voices, the Setlists For Young Voices auction features a surprising catalog of setlists from a huge array of artists. There are setlists from alternative torchbearers like Patti Smith, The Pretenders, Nine Inch Nails, and R.E.M., hip-hop and soul-pop performers like A$AP Rocky and Janelle Monáe, indie figureheads Andrew Bird, Death Cab For Cutie, and Sigur Ros, alternative contemporaries like Mitski and Speedy Ortiz, and even country A-listers like Dixie Chicks and Reba McEntire.
"One of my friends used to stand at the front of the show so he could read the set list and call out the name of the next song. It really used to annoy the band," Hornby says in a press release. "So this is a way to satisfy your music-geek side without aggravating your favorite musicians."
We called up Eggers to talk about what he, Hornby and Chabon hope to achieve with Setlists For Young Voices, which runs until May 2 at 7:00 PT. The novelist and 826 Valencia founder also reminisces about his days spent music writing, and why, ultimately, he'd prefer not to meet his favorite artists.
From a consumer perspective, you and Nick Hornby might be two of the most recognizable voices in literature. Can you tell me about your relationship with Nick, and how the idea for this set list auction came about?
Dave Eggers: I can't remember how Nick and I very first met, but it's been a long time, and Nick is such a music lover. And so over the years we exchanged [band recommendations]. If there's a new band or even an old band that we discover, we'll let each other know.
The last time I saw Nick was a few months ago in London, I visited the Ministry of Stories and he's still involved there to some extent. He's doing a fundraiser and so he just out of the blue maybe three or four months ago said we should do this, try to auction off set lists. 'Cause we're both music fans, and I don't think either one of us has a musical aptitude whatsoever and talent. I think we're both kinda outsiders in that we're just fans and we never pretended to be anything more, or experts or anything though we'd both written a lot about music.
I think we both come at it from a pure fan perspective. So that idea immediately resonated with me because I just, the idea of owning something, artifact or document from a concert that otherwise just is ephemeral. Only just in your memory, really. It resonated right away with me and then we started asking around and almost immediately these pieces of paper started coming through the mail and they were much more effecting than I even thought.
I remember opening one from a 9x12 envelope from Paris and it was two set lists from The Pretenders. I can't remember where those were from. They weren't actually from Parisian concerts, but they had this handwritten list that I'm assuming Chrissie Hynde wrote 'cause it looked like her handwriting and she signed it. It had every great song they ever wrote.
How did you actually assemble the list of set list submissions?
Eggers: It was random. It's just anybody that anybody could get ahold of. We're hoping to do it again and next time will be more systematic. Because it's just Nick and I emailing people saying, “Hey, if you know anyone else can you email them?” There's no rhyme or reason to it.
Then, at a certain point Nick, just randomly mentioned it to Michael [Chabon] and Chabon has a bunch of bands that he knows and so he reached out to them: people like Rush and Pete Townsend and stuff. And obviously these are a lot of bands from our generation, but there’s also A$AP Rocky, and then an old friend of mine does this festival here called Noise Pop. He grabbed a set list from every band that played Noise Pop, just sort of ran around and grabbed them after each show.
So that's where you have those two major groups: There's the at large ones that we got through the mail and then they were all the Noise Pop ones and there's a little bit of a Coachella contingent coming this week.
Wow. I just was thinking, I always wondered to what extent artists save their set lists at all.
Eggers: Yeah. It depends. R.E.M. have a system where they saved them. A guy I know that managed them, he went and got one from 1989 and one from London and one from San Francisco, and then Peter Buck wrote little comments on it and all four guys, original band members, all signed it.
So they had a real system. And then other people I've talked to say, “Oh God I've never seen any of them.” And in a few cases they and some other people have them all saved digitally.
So in that case, they reprinted [the set lists] and signed them. We're being very clear about what you'd be bidding on. Whether it's an original or a recreation. But most of them are fairly recent and were used onstage. It's surprising how organized people are.
Yeah, from what I can tell, this looks like a very diverse list, crossing ages, gender and genre. Then just from a fan level, I appreciate that you have at least three Death Cab For Cutie set lists up for auction.
Eggers: They've been real big supporters for a long time. They've done a lot of fundraisers for us. They've been great.
We've never done an online auction before, so I think we're learning a lot along the way. We're hoping that the word will get out and that these bands will put the word out among their own fans. I don't know if you can see Patti Smith's [set list]… Hers are beautiful handwritten documents, each one of them with the letterhead of, you know, some European hotel. Some of them have tape on them, and some of them are a little wrinkled, and the ones that were sort of taped to the monitor or the stage itself are just so cool.
I think the weird thing with music is you don't really have the opportunity to get a signed anything… Like, if it's books you just go to the bookstore when the author's speaking and you get a book signed and you can have a personal interaction. But it's a little harder with musicians. There's a little bit more distance sometimes. So I think this is a nice way to have something.
Yeah, maybe if you have the patience to wait by the merch table after the show… I guess it depends on their level of fame.
Eggers: Yeah the average band, if you're playing to 1,800 people they can't wait after, it's just the logistics of it wouldn't work they'd be there till three or four in the morning and so they sorta have to move on but this is a way where nobody has to wait in the dark for six hours.
Makes sense. You mentioned earlier that you have no musical aptitude, but you did do music journalism in the past, correct? You had a column at Spin Magazine. Would you describe your, for lack of a better word, philosophy, in regards to music writing?
Eggers: I think the title of my column for Spin was ‘And Now, A Less Informed Opinion,’ or something like that. It was sort of underlining fact that I don't even know what a note is. I don't know anything about how music works. So there was a kind of purity to the outside and mentality. The reader knew I wasn't going to pretend to be an expert. But I always knew what I liked and tried to explain why I liked it and that was it.
If you can really explain why you like something, as opposed to putting it in the tenses of one of the “faux expert” framework, you can let your passion show and keep a little bit of a mystery around music as opposed to trying to dissect it and map of its history and power.
Nick Hornby actually was [a music writer], he's such a great music writer, too. So the two of us [came up] around the same time, and I came up with [writer] Sarah Vowell. We were both working at the same Weekly out here [in San Francisco], and we wrote about music here and we were all trying to make it a little more personal. Strip away sort of the mask of self-appointed expertise, I guess.
Spin really had some great writing at the very beginning. That was why I went there. I had the first issue of Spin when it came out. They really love music, and it just came through. It wasn't through kind of a cynical or “seen-it-all” sort of lens that some of the publications sometimes had. It was really super refreshing. And the fact that they gave me a space was really remarkable to give that I had, didn't have any right. There wasn't any precedent for someone like me writing about music in a magazine like that. Anyway, it was fun while it lasted.
To what extent do you keep up with new music now?
Eggers: My tastes now are all over the place. There's really nothing I won't listen to, so anything anybody gives me. I'll [try]. I like a lot of country music and a lot of hip-hop I like. Really like a lot of old soul music and what I listen to most these days is I buy old dollar records and listen to vinyl. 'Cause then I can go through all of the, find all of the stuff that I never had time to buy or money to buy before. Now that it's all a dollar it's kinda great.
I only listen to vinyl, by the way. If it doesn't come out on vinyl I don't hear it, unfortunately.
But yeah, some of the bands that we have for the set list, they are people that I have written about or happen to know a bit. Andrew Bird went to my high school, so we kinda know each other.
Ah, the best whistler who ever lived.
Eggers: Yeah. He's so good at everything. I think he's a major American composer, really.
When Andrew's new record comes out, he and I did a conversation for the liner notes. Yeah, it's fun to meet a few musicians here and there, but sometimes I would prefer not.
Like, a don't-meet-your-heroes sort of thing?
Eggers: Yeah a little bit. Like, every so often you just wanna keep that music uninformed by any personal interaction. Or untainted. Even though I've never had a bad interaction with any musician. But I sometimes have been in situations where instead of going up and introducing myself or telling them I really like their music, I just think like, you know what, I can get this anywhere. It's not gonna help anything, and I just wanted to leave it as-is. Because the music means too much to me.